The Cruise of the Corwin
by John Muir
Steamer Corwin, Unalaska, October 4, 1881.
On the home voyage,
all the hard Arctic work done, the Corwin stopped a week at the head of
Kotzebue Sound, near Chamisso Island, to seek a fresh supply of water and
make some needful repairs and observations, during which time I had a capital
opportunity to examine the curious and interesting ice formations of the
shores of Eschscholtz Bay. I found ice in some form or other, exposed at
intervals of from a mile to a few yards, on the tide-washed front of the
shore bluffs on both sides of the bay, a distance of about fifty miles.
But it is only the most conspicuous mass, forming a bluff, at Elephant
Point, on the south side of the bay, that seems to have been observed hitherto,
or attracted much attention.
This Elephant Point, so called from the fossil elephant tusks found
here, is a bluff of solid ice, one hundred and forty feet high, covered
on the top with a foot or two of ordinary tundra vegetation, and with tall
grass on the terraces and shelving portions of the front, wherever the
slope is sufficiently gentle for soil to find rest. It is a rigid fossil
fragment of a glacier leaning back against the north side of a hill, mostly
in shadow, and covered lightly with glacial detritus from the hill slope
above it, over which the tundra vegetation has gradually been extended,
and which eventually formed a thick feltlike protection against waste during
the summer. Thus it has lasted until now, wasting only on the exposed face
fronting the bay, which is being constantly undermined, the soil and vegetation
on top being precipitated over the raw, melting ice front and washed away
by the tide. Were it not that its base is swept by tide currents, the accumulation
of tundra moss and peat would finally re-bury the front and check further
waste. As it is, the formation will not last much longer--probably not
more than a thousand or fifteen hundred years. Its present age is perhaps
more than this.
When one walks along the base of the formation--which is about a mile
or so in length-making one's way over piles of rotten humus and through
sloppy bog mud of the consistence of watery porridge, mixed with bones
of elephants, buffaloes, musk oxen, etc., the ice so closely resembles
the wasting snout of a glacier, with its jagged projecting ridges, ledges,
and small, dripping, tinkling rills, that it is not easy to realize that
it is not one in ordinary action.
Mingled with the true glacier ice we notice masses of dirty stratified
ice, made up of clean layers alternating with layers of mud and sand, and
mingled with bits of humus and sphagnum, and of leaves and stems of the
various plants that grow on the tundra above. This dirty ice of peculiar
stratification never blends into the glacier ice, but is simply frozen
upon it, filling cavities or spreading over slopes here and there. It is
formed by the freezing of films of clear and dirty water from the broken
edge of the tundra, a process going on every spring and autumn, when frosts
and thaws succeed each other night and morning, cloudy days and sunny days.
This, of course, is of comparatively recent age, even the oldest of it.
A striking result of the shaking up and airing and draining of the tundra
soil is seen on the face of the ice slopes and terraces. When the undermined
tundra material rolls down upon those portions of the ice front where it
can come to rest, it is well buffeted and shaken, and frequently lies upside
down as if turned with a plow. Here it is well drained through resting
on melting ice, and though not more than a foot or two in thickness, it
produces a remarkably close and tall growth of grass, four to six feet
high, and as lush and broad-leaved as may be found in any farmer's field.
Cut for hay it would make about four or five tons per acre.
Only a few other plants that would be called weeds are found growing
among the grass, mostly senecio and artemisia, both tall and exuberant,
showing the effects of this curious system of cultivation on this strange
soil. The vegetation on top of the bluff is the most beautiful that I have
yet seen, not rank and cultivated looking, like that on the face slopes,
but showing the finest and most delicate beauty of wildness, in forms,
combinations, and colors of leaf, stalk, and fruit. There were red and
yellow dwarf birch, arbutus, willow, and purple huckleberry, with lovely
grays of sedges and lichens. The neutral tints of the lichens are intensely
I found the shore-bluff towards the mouth of the Buckland River from
forty to sixty feet high, with a regular slope of about thirty degrees.
It was covered with willows and alders, some of them five or six feet high,
and long grass; also patches of ice here and there, but no large masses.
The soil is a fine blue clay at bottom, with water-worn quartz, pebbles
and sand above it, like that of the opposite side of the estuary, and evidently
brought down by the river floods when the ice of the glaciers that occupied
this river basin and that of the Kuuk [A river tributary
to Eschscholtz Bay from the cast. It was called Kuuk on British Admiralty
charts of the early eighties, but is now known as the Mungoark River.]
The ice that I found here and on the opposite side of the bay, especially
where the tundra is low and flat, let us say forty or fifty feet above
the sea, and covered with pools and strips of water, is not glacier ice,
but ice derived from water freezing in pools and veins and hollows, overgrown
with mosses, lichens, etc., and afterwards exposed as fossil ice on the
shore face of the tundra where it is being wasted by the action of the
sea. The tundra has been cracked in every direction, and in looking over
its surface, slight depressions, or some difference in the vegetation,
indicate the location and extent of the fissures. When these are traced
forward to the edge of the shore-bluff, a cross-section of ice is seen
from two to four or five feet wide. The larger sections are simply the
exposed sides of those ice veins that chance to trend in a direction parallel
to the face of the bluff. Besides these I found several other kinds of
ice, differing in origin from the foregoing, but which can hardly be described
in a mere letter, however interesting to the geologist.
At St. Michael we found a party of wrecked prospectors from Golofnin
Bay, who were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Corwin, as she would
be the last vessel leaving for California this year. This proved to be
the Oakland party mentioned in a previous letter. With genuine Yankee enterprise
[these men] had pushed their way into the far wilderness beyond the Yukon
to seek for silver. Specimens of bright, exciting ore, assaying a hundred
and fifty dollars to the ton, had been exhibited in Oakland, brought from
a mine said to be located near tide water at Golofnin Bay, Alaska, and
so easily worked that large ships could be loaded with the precious ore
about as readily as with common ballast. Thereupon a company, called the
Alaska Mining Company, was organized, the schooner W. F. March chartered,
and with the necessary supplies a party of ten sailed from San Francisco
May 5, 1881, for Golofnin Bay, to explore this mine in particular, and
the region in general, and then to return, this fall, with a cargo of ore.
They arrived in Golofnin Bay June 18, lost their vessel in a gale on
the north side of the bay August 15, and arrived in twenty-one days at St.
Michael in canoes and a boat that was saved from the wreck. They found
the mine as rich as represented, but far less accessible. It is said to
be about thirty miles from tide water. All feel confident that they have
a valuable mine. Two or three of the party were away at the time of the
disaster, prospecting for cinnabar on the Kuskoquim, and are left behind
to pass the winter as best they may at some of the trading stations.
Our two weeks' stay at Unalaska has been pleasant and restful after
the long cruise--about fourteen thousand miles altogether up to this point.
The hill slopes and mountains look richly green and foodful, and the views
about the harbor, at the close and beginning of storms, when clouds are
wreathing the alpine summits, are very beautiful.
The huts of the Aleuts here are very picturesque at this time of the
year. The grass grows tall over the sides and the roof, waving in the wind,
and making a fine fringe about the windows and the door. When the church
bell rings on Sunday and the good calico-covered people plod sedately forth
to worship, and the cows on the hillside moo blandly, and the sun shines
over the green slopes, then the scene is like a bit of New England or old
Scotland. But later in the day, when the fiery kvass is drunk, and the
accordians and concertinas and cheap music boxes are in full blast, then
the noise and unseemly clang attending drunkenness is not at all like a
Most of the Aleuts have an admixture of Russian blood. Many of them
dance well. Three balls were given during our stay here, that is to say,
American balls with native women. The Aleuts have their own dances in their
A few days ago I made an excursion to the top of a well-formed
volcanic cone at the mouth of a picturesque glacial fiord, about eight
miles from. here. This mountain, about two thousand feet high, commands
a magnificent view of the mountains of Unalaska, Akutan, and adjacent islands.
Akutan [The highest mountain of Akutan Island. The United
States Coast and Geodetic Survey Chart No. 8860 gives its altitude as forty-one
hundred feet.] still emits black smoke and cinders at times, and
thunders loud enough to be heard at Unalaska.
The noblest of them all was Makushin
[Appendix 1 (Wrangell Land),]
, about nine thousand feet high
and laden with glaciers, a grand sight, far surpassing what I had been
led to expect. There is a spot on its summit which is said to smoke, probably
mostly steam and vapor from the infiltration of water into the heated cavities
of the old volcano. The extreme summit of Makushin was wrapped in white
clouds, and from beneath these the glaciers were seen descending impressively
into the sunshine to within a thousand or fifteen hundred feet of sea-level.
This fine mountain, glittering in its showy mail of snow and ice, together
with a hundred other peaks dipping into the blue sky, and every one of
them telling the work of ice or fire in their forms and sculpture--these,
and the sparkling sea, and long inreaching fiords, are a noble picture
to add to the thousand others which have enriched our lives this summer
in the great Northland.
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